Iwo Jima Medic Credits God for Survival

Iwo Jima landing
Navy and Coast Guard landing craft of all types crowd onto the assault beach at Iwo Jima to bring the 4th and 5th Marine Divisions ashore. )National Archives & Records Administration)

When Bob Harmon joined the Navy shortly after graduating from high school, he thought that would be a better option than waiting for the Army to draft him.

"Everything about the Navy was intriguing to me," said Harmon, a 90-year-old with a sharp mind and a warm, pleasant disposition, who appears to be about 20 years younger than he is. "They had good living conditions, good training."

While he was playing clarinet in the bands and running track at Lincoln High School, Harmon was five foot, seven inches tall and weighed in at 120 pounds.

He did not see himself as someone who would one day enter some of the most brutal battles in history and render aid to dozens of wounded Marines while under intense enemy fire.

But like millions of men and women of his generation, he responded to the call to fight in a war that threatened the very existence of the nation and the welfare of the entire world.

Hospital corps training

After completing 12 weeks of basic training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, just north of Chicago, in late 1942, Harmon was assigned to hospital corps school.

It was a six-month course, compressed into six weeks for the war.

"I took a battery of tests, and they placed me there," Harmon recalled, during an interview at his home on the city's east edge. "It wasn't my choice, but as it turned out I enjoyed it."

While the war was heating up in the Pacific and Europe, Harmon was assigned to stateside duty at a major submarine base in Connecticut. Working as a surgeon's aide at a base dispensary, Harmon assisted in surgery in the morning, then cleaned up the operating room.

"I had a good deal," said Harmon, a humble man who admittedly was content to pass the war in peaceful circumstances.

However, he got on the bad side of an officer who rejected his request for leave, and the next thing he knew "the bottom fell out," and he was headed for the Fleet Marine Force. First stop was Camp Lejeune, a recently constructed Marine base on the North Carolina coast, where he began training in combat medicine.

"We were going to dodge bullets," Harmon said, adding that he did not mind his new assignment. "We accepted it."

While the Marines were winning acclaim at home, by wresting a series of islands from Japanese forces throughout the Pa-cific, Harmon cruised to Hawaii with a group of freshly minted combat-ready corpsmen and a replacement brigade of 4,500 Marines.

"I was assigned to the 23rd Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Division," Harmon recalled. "I went on maneuvers with them. They put us in these landing boats and you would go into a beach as you would in combat. On land they had us crawling on our bellies and fired machine guns over our heads and you hoped the bullets didn't fall short."

Before he was shipped to Iwo Jima -- to take part in the battle that would define the Marine Corps for generations to come -- Harmon landed on the beaches of two other Pacific islands.

Saipan and Tinian

On June 15, 1944, just nine days after soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy halfway across the world, Harmon headed for the shore of Saipan, a strategically important island defended by about 30,000 Japanese troops. Harmon was dropped on the beach about 20 minutes after the first wave.


He and another corpsman were assigned to a stretcher, to haul wounded Marines back to the beach for evacuation. As they carried the first wounded man, artillery shells from inland positions were landing in a pattern nearby, one just short of them, one just beyond.

After dropping the wounded man in the evacuation area, the artillery fire resumed. The corpsmen took refuge in a foxhole, just below the nose of a U.S. landing craft. When the firing stopped, the corpsmen ran off in separate directions.

"Before I took off, I looked up and inside that LVT (landing vehicle tracked) was loaded with mortar shells. If they had hit that thing, we'd still be flying," he said, chuckling at the memory of his first brush with death in combat.

Harmon, then 22, was quickly becoming acclimated to the sights and sounds of combat. As he ran back to his company's makeshift headquarters, he saw hundreds of bodies of Japanese soldiers strewn on the ground, victims of U.S. bombardment from land and sea.

A combat-hardened Marine sergeant later showed him how to take advantage of circumstances to increase the odds of survival. The sergeant started digging a foxhole next to a dead Japanese soldier's body.

"I said, 'What are you doing?,' " Harmon recalled. "He said, 'We are going to dig our foxhole right here and pile dirt on this guy and use him as a barricade.'

"I said, 'Oh, great. You mean I've got to sleep next to that dead Jap all night?' So I did."

It has been said that U.S. troops fight for souvenirs, and Harmon was no exception.

Harmon and another American entered a grass shack, in which they found a dead small boy. There were about 30,000 civilians living on the island at that time. There was a large, attractive urn near the door, about 5 feet tall and 2 feet wide.

"Anyway, I went up and I pulled it back," Harmon recalled. "I was looking at a hand grenade. They had booby-trapped it. It never went off. I was lucky. It was a dud.

That cured me of souvenir hunting right there."

On Saipan, Harmon put to use his training. Carrying about 50 pounds of emergency medical supplies in a backpack and hip pouches, he treated Marines where they fell, administering morphine from small styrettes and pouring packets of sulfa into wounds to prevent infection before bandaging them.

"You would get to the most serious that you could find," he recalled. "It depended on who yelled first and where, and how bad he was hit. I never had many that died. Most of them lived.

"I always put the wounded man between me and the enemy. We were fewer in number than the Marines. They'd be up the creek if they ran out of corpsmen."

Harmon said he does not remember drawing much enemy fire, but believes he must have done so.

"Everything happens so fast in combat that you don't have time to think," Harmon recalled. "If you had time to think, you were going to crack up."

Despite his primary duties as a healer, Harmon was also trained as a combatant. On at least two occasions on Saipan, Harmon fired on enemy soldiers. One time they were bivouacked in a coconut grove when about 20 soldiers ran through their lines and the Americans opened fire on them.

"We were all firing," Harmon recalled.


After Saipan was taken, the Marines attacked a tiny nearby island called Tinian. That island would later be known for its airstrip, from which the planes carrying the atomic bombs that ended the war would be launched.

Harmon took part in that invasion with the 4th Marines also.

"We were pinned down by machine-gun fire on D-Day," Harmon recalled. "So all we could do was lie down. We were all pinned down. The beach was so small we were all stacked up."

That was the second successful invasion for Harmon and the third for the 4th Marine Division, which had invaded the Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands in February 1944, shortly before Harmon joined the unit.

While Saipan and Tinian provided the Fighting Fourth with plenty of combat experience, nothing could totally prepare the leathernecks for their final campaign of the war.

Five weeks in Hell

Harmon returned to Hawaii for additional training, to prepare for the invasion of a small Japanese home island that held critical airfields. While U.S. military leaders believed that weeks of naval and air bombardment had crippled defenses on Iwo Jima, more than 22,000 determined Japanese troops were hidden in a network of tunnels and caves.

During five weeks of combat, 5,400 Marines and 980 sailors would be killed in the campaign to take Iwo Jima, an island of about eight square miles, about one-fifth the size of Decatur.

"Iwo was hell on earth," Harmon said. "If there is a hell on earth, it was hell."

On the morning of Feb. 19, 1945, Harmon was in a landing craft about a half mile from the beach, when the Japanese opened fire on the Marines who landed in the first three waves. Harmon's boat was in the fifth wave.

They were still firing when he landed a short time later.

"There were many Marines strewn across the beachhead," Harmon recalled. "A lot of guys got hit in the head, it seemed like. There was no defense. There was no place to hide."

The plan was for the corpsmen to advance with the troops. There were three successive tiers of volcanic ash to climb, tiers created by the tides. The fine ash dragged Harmon downward with each forward step, and each time he and the other troops reached the brink of the next level they drew more fire.

Harmon was put to work quickly, carrying a 300-pound colonel who had his face blown off on a stretcher back to the shore.

"He was going to die," Harmon said.

While Harmon knew some of the Marines, he was closest to his fellow corpsmen, whose losses affected him deeply.

"We lost a bunch of corpsmen that day," he recalled.

That included a young man from Chicago, whom he had known since they both joined the 4th Marine Division. Harmon and another corpsman carried him from the battlefield to their headquarters.

"He gave me a little pistol he had," Harmon recalled. "He said, 'Take this Bob, you might need this. And then he died."

Harmon, struggling with his emotions as he recalled one of his worst memories, said he cried when his friend died.

"That was the first time in my years in the service," Harmon said. "But I got off my can real quick. You're going to crack up if you sit there and feel sorry for yourself."

At night, the best places to sleep were bomb craters, because foxholes dug in ash didn't hold up. The ground was heated from volcanic activity underneath the surface, which helped keep the troops warm during 40 degree nights.

Harmon was expected to risk his life to save others, but on Iwo he hesitated to go behind enemy lines to check on a Marine who might already be dead. But after that Marine's buddy kept "pleading and crying," Harmon relented.

That decision almost cost him his life. The two men had to shinny down a 50-foot high palm tree to enter enemy territory from higher ground. Then they had 300 yards to travel in the dark to where they believed the fallen Marine was. He had been shot while accompanying a Marine with a flamethrower. They were flushing enemy soldiers from a cave.

When Harmon and the rifleman got to his buddy, he was lying dead on a knoll.

"A Jap threw a hand grenade at us and missed us," he recalled. "It went to the top of the knoll and rolled back at him."

The former sprinter took off.

"I never ran 300 yards so fast in my life," he said. "Then we had to shinny up a palm tree about 50 feet to get back to our lines."

Faith and determination

Billie Harmon, who married Bob five years after he returned home, said her husband of 61 years has always had faith and determination, which probably helped him survive the war in such good shape.

"I've never really noticed any effects of the war," said the retired Decatur kindergarten teacher.

She said Bob has always been able to talk about his experiences during World War II. He would tell her that one of the hardest things to face on Iwo Jima was seeing all the people that had been killed and then "you wondered what was in store for you that day."

Harmon, who remained on Iwo Jima until the campaign was completed, said he does not mind telling stories about his service. Many Iwo Jima veterans prefer to forget their horrendous experiences.

"To me it was an adventure," he said. "Whatever happened, happened. I had my close calls with death, but I always come out unscathed. I have to thank my God that he saved me. In combat you pray a lot. I felt like I was spared."

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